Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Way back in 1857 a foreign journalist described India in words that seem eerily relevant today. (That is going a really long way back because 1857 was the year Indian soldiers rebelled against their British overlords in what came to be known, in Indian terms, as the first war of independence and, in British terms, as the Sepoy Mutiny. This was the showdown that led to the formal end of the Mughal Empire and the formal start of the British Empire, the Crown taking over officially from the East India Company).

In November of that year an American editor named Charles Creighton Hazewell published an article titled British India in The Atlantic Monthly. His thesis was that the cultural divisions within India were so sharp and extreme that a foreign power found it easy to take control. A lengthy quote is justified:

"In one respect the Indian Empire of England resembles the Roman Empire. The latter comprised many and widely different countries and races, and so it is with the former. We are so accustomed to speak of India as if it constituted one country, and was inhabited by a homogenous people, that it is difficult to understand that not even in Europe are nations to be found more unlike to one another than in British India. In Hindostan and the Deccan there are ten different civilised nations, resembling each other no more than Danes resemble Italians or Spaniards Poles. They differ in moral, physical and intellectual conditions -- in modes of thought and in modes of life. This is one of the chief causes of England's supremacy, just as similar state of things not only promoted the conquests of Rome but facilitated her rule after they had been made. The Emperors ruled over Syrians, Greeks, Egyptians and other eastern peoples with ease because [these peoples] had little in common and could not combine against their conquerors".

Not that Hazewell had discovered something new. Conquerors exploiting Indian disunity is a well-recorded story. Robert Clive won the crucial Battle of Plassey only because he could get the Bengal commander-in-chief Mir Jaffer to betray his Nawab. Nevertheless every recording of the story is a reminder of how we make ourselves easy to be dominated.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, the eastern half centred around Constantinople lasted several centuries longer than the western half headquartered in Italy. Presumably the notion of the "Orient" provided a cultural connect of some sort. The British empire in India failed when, apart from war and politics, "the ten different civilised nations" Hazewell saw in India became one nation under Mahatma Gandhi. The might and political cunning of Britain could not match the unity of India.

That unity disappeared with Gandhi. Politicians of a different type took over the country and private interests gained precedence over public good. The ten different nations of the past multiplied into a hundred narrow ideologies trying to control India. What was benign in the past became malignant under the impact of modern political manipulations.

Linguistic emotions were the first to fan the flames of internal antagonisms. The languages actually gained nothing apart from decorative embellishments such as "classical status". But as a political tool, it became potent in the hands of localised power-seekers. An ironic extreme of sorts was reached when the Telugu state, for which the original linguistic martyr Potti Sreeramulu sacrificed himself, was further split into two Telugu states. Today Telangana fights Andhra, Maharashtra fights Karnataka, Karnataka fights Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu fights Kerala and Kerala fights Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over water.

Linguistic antagonisms have since been overtaken by sharper, more dangerous communal enmities. Muslim extremists fight Hindu extremists and vice versa, Christian evangelists fight Christian establishmentarians, and Dalit Mayawati threatens to convert to Buddhism "with my crores of followers". On the sidelines, Kadva and Leuva Patels fight Kachia and Anjana Patels, Kapus fight Naidus, Bhumihars fight Rajputs, Vanniyars fight Nadars, Jacobites fight Orthodox, and Jats fight everybody. The Roman and British empires were simple garden-variety exercises compared to today's Indian Empire controlled by vicious religious hatreds.

The Brits and Romans took advantage of existing divisions. We created new and lethal divisions. The Westerners saw the differences among Indians but were too uninformed to notice the unifying bonds that were there -- such as the principles of sanatana dharma and the traditions of tolerance. Today we have lost those bonds and become victims of selfish parties that seek to divide and rule. Perhaps 1857 wasn't all that bad.

Monday, January 8, 2018


There's something about royalty that excites the popular mind. Thailand's Bhumipol Adulyadej reigned from 1946 to 2016 to become the world's longest reigning monarch; he was so popular that when he died, Thais wept. Japan's ruling Emperor Akihito, the 125th in history's longest royal line (beginning from 660 BCE), has got permission from Parliament to abdicate by 2020 because, at 83, he says he is too old. Britain's Queen Elizabeth is 91 and there isn't a beep from Buckingham Palace about her being too old.

In Thailand and Japan, the monarchy is spectacularly a-political. In Britain, too, the royals have no role in policy decisions. Yet, the British royal family could well become a tactical card in politics if a snap election is held as is likely. The Labour Party, according to current gossip, may take a stand against the heir apparent, Prince Charles, and propose that Charle's son William be declared the next in line.

That will of course be a break in convention in convention-loving Britain. But it will win considerable backing from the common man because Charles is widely disliked. Bhumipol's son Vajralongkorn, the current King of Thailand, is also disliked. But that won't touch him. Thai Kings are seldom seen in public, their movements are unknown, there is no public reporting of their activities and there is a tradition of lese-majeste which makes any kind of irreverence against the monarch a punishable offence.

In the free-for-all system of British democracy, taking potshots at Charles is a parlour game. And he is a favourite target primarily because of his affair with the grand-motherly Camilla before and during his marriage with the beautiful and widely admired Princess Diana. After Diana's death (in a road accident that continues to raise scary interpretations), Charles married his mistress, giving his unpopularity a universal dimension.

Elizabeth's own air of detachment at the time of Princess Diana's funeral had attracted criticism. But she has managed to rise above controversies by her queenly demeanour and her sense of decorum. With the eccentric and embarrassingly undiplomatic Prince Philip as husband, it is no mean achievement for Queen Elizabeth to have retained the dignity of the British throne all these years. No one knows whether her own opinion is in favour of her son or grandson succeeding her. But the politicians would like to make it a topic of public debate, knowing that grandson William will influence voters while son Charles will drive them away.

How grand and unchallenged, by comparison, was the era of royal princes in India. There were 565 of them, the British massaging their ego in ways that ranged from graded gun salutes to titular classification into Rajas and Maharajas. Some of the rulers were sophisticates, some crude. Many were adorned by necklaces of gold, diamonds and pearls, some led ascetic lives. Maharaja Jai Singh of Alwar felt insulted when the Rolls Royce company in London took him for a common Indian and made fun of him. He took revenge by using half a dozen Rolls Royce cars to transport his city's waste. The Wadiyars of Mysore faced financial problems after the abolition of privy purse, but popular regard for them continued.

The wealthiest of them all was also the messiest. The Nizam of Hyderabad was considered the richest man in the world. But where all his money has gone remains a mystery. What is known is that a day before India's military action against Hyderabad in 1948 (following the Nizam's refusal to join India), one million pounds were transferred to a British bank. That money is claimed by India, Pakistan and the Nizam's heirs -- which means the British can go on profiting from the money.

But of course no one was more glamorous, more legendary than the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, GBE. He got Cartier of Paris to turn a trunkful of diamonds and other precious gems into a necklace, the Patiala Necklace, costing $ 25 million in those days. (The Patiala Peg is a measure of largeness by which bars across India honour the Maharaja). A 1400-piece dinner set made of gold and silver, 40 plus Rolls Royces, 88 children from five formal wives, a personal harem of 350 women, a whole chicken at formal dinners followed by two whole chickens after the guests had left, Bhupinder Singh finally died of boredom.

Decadent days? Sure. But preferable to the days when people are lynched to death in public and the killers are hailed as patriots.

Monday, January 1, 2018


Machimanda Deviah caught the spirit of our times when he posted: The black buck who was driving Salman Khan's car had killed Arushi Talwar because she did 2G scam which jumped to death from the Adarsh building. He might have added that Adarsh, caught in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter killing, was arrested for not linking his Aadhar to the Vyapan scam whose GST was stolen by Lalu Prasad's fodder fiddlers who ate 1000-rupee notes.

We live in a convoluted, topsy-turvy India where good is the same as evil and tricolour patriotism is anti-national. Things are so mixed up that we have no idea whether the year beginning tomorrow will be any better than the one dying today. No new year in recent memory is as worrisome as this one. We do not know what's the right thing to do and the wrong thing to say. We are at the mercy of the moment. And the moment is dominated by a new variety of violence that bears the stamp of approval and therefore brings no retribution.

The civilisational values traditionally attached to India, values of co-existence and tolerance, are occasionally asserted by a brave heart here and a defiant spirit there. Sometimes it is done for private satisfaction, sometimes to set a public example. Carnatic musician T.M.Krishna, a brahminic dissenter who questions brahminic presumptions, sang Tamil sufi songs in Mumbai's historic Afghan church, ending the concert with an invocation to Allah. The fringe was angry, but the church was full.

At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas this year found a whole lot of patriots in a frenzy. In Rajasthan they disrupted a function that was held with police permission. In Aligarh Christian schools were warned not to have any celebration. In Madhya Pradesh carol singers were charged by the Government with outraging the religious feelings of people.

All this was no doubt on the assumption that Christmas means Christianity. That is a myth today. Christmas means commerce around the world. Marketing geniuses have developed a whole lot of ideas to bamboozle people of all faiths in the name of Christmas and New Year. Gift giving is at the centre of this trade. Christmas cakes, Christmas cookies, Christmas costumes, Christmas cocktails -- these are what constitute Christmas today. Jesus Christ is in the picture, if at all, only as an absentee salesman.

Delve deeper and you will see how all-consuming has been the power of the marketing. Santa Clause, the big Christmas attraction, was a gimmick developed by Cocacola in the 1920s. Christmas cards, a million-dollar industry today, came out of a scribbled greeting an Englishman named Sir Henry Cole sent to some of his friends in 1843.

To see the irrelevance of Jesus Christ in all this, we only have to see the way Christmas is celebrated. Christmas trees, snow, reindeer and other aspects of European winter are associated with a birth in a Palestinian town known for heat and sand storms. Jesus Christ was a brown-skinned Asian. But the photo-representations of him present a fair-skinned, cat-eyed blonde from somewhere in Scandinavia. The fringe in India is the only group that has failed to see the disconnect between Christianity and Christmas.

They should learn from the Chinese. The Communist Party issued an official directive to its Youth League early in December not to participate in Christmas-related celebrations because "the youth must be role models in abiding to the faith of communism". That's at the ideological level. At the practical level, China is the world's biggest manufacturer and exporter of Christmas goodies -- from artificial Christmas trees to fancy lighting. In Chinese cities Christmas is the biggest shopping season. They even organise special events -- and yes, carol parties -- to attract people to departments stores and shopping malls. A dozen churches in Beijing hold special music programmes attended by music lovers of all religions. The Chinese are a practical people. They do not let ideology interfere with their national economy.

India presents an odd-man-out profile with an intolerant religious creed at the government level. This changes the world's view of us. I write this from Bangkok. A headline in the first Western newspaper I saw here was: "Is India's growing hardline nationalism giving Hindu majority a licence to kill?" The world does not like what it sees in India. People's netas such as Sakshi Maharaj and Ananth Kumar Hegde can of course tell the world to mind its own business. Will that help us mind our business more productively?

Monday, December 25, 2017


The reactions to the Gujarat election results were as boastful as the campaign rhetoric was hypocritical, proving yet again that politicians never learn anything. The BJP's leaders were full of exaggerated claims. Congress voices were similar though the exaggerations were more modest. The khachra parties that should not have been in the field at all were too shocked to react immediately. That they were shocked was the only sign of normalcy in an otherwise absurd, unnatural, but very Indian, scenario.

There was not one Mayawati candidate in the winners' list though she was arrogant enough to field her minions in all 182 constituencies. One of them gave his deposit money of Rs 5000 in coins to show that he got it through public donations. He lost. Not one Sharad Pawar candidate won out of 72 fielded. In fact the results fell into a pattern that was astonishingly clearcut -- BJP versus Congress, that was it. There were only four other candidates who won, two of them belonging to the Bharatiya Tribal Party in alliance with the Congress, and two independents one of whom was Jignesh Mewani, also an ally of the Congress.

It was not only a two-party contest, it was a close contest. This is significant because the venue was Gujarat, the stamping ground of the two BJP stalwarts considered invincible. And it was a contest which the BJP knew it could not afford to lose. So they put everything into the fight, unprecedented personal campaign by the Prime Minister and, as local reports said, unprecedented allotment of resources.

With all that, the BJP could only scrape through with a margin of less than 3000 in 16 constituencies. In Dholka, for example, it won by 327 votes. The BSP got 3139 votes in this constituency and the NCP 1198. If a fraction of this splitting was avoided, the opposition would have netted the seat. The emotionally important seat of Godhra was won by a Congress rebel who stood in BJP colours -- and still got only a majority of 236 votes.

In other words, if the conceit of marginal party leaders had not divided the votes, the story of Gujarat would have been different. To put it differently, a significant number of Gujarati voters are no longer enamoured of the BJP that has ruled them for nearly two decades. The Congress getting so close and yet so far must be attributed primarily to its lack of strong local leadership. The Congress campaign was a one-man charge, the one man being an import from Delhi. The party's four seniormost leaders lost even as their party was on the upswing. Something is grossly amiss here.

On the other hand, the Congress gained momentum from the rise of a new generation of leaders. It would be a mistake to see the Three Musketeers of Gujarat -- Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani -- as mere caste leaders. It is true that their rise is the result of caste-based discrimination. Jignesh Mewani, for example, became a leader following the public whipping of Dalits by cow vigilantes in Una. But all three have shown a modernistic approach to the problems of the people they represent emphasising the need for jobs, economic openings and better academic opportunities. This trio may well turn out to be representative of the new Gujarat waiting in the wings. Now that the Congress has had the experience of direct dealings with them, there must be an effort to bring up a clutch of credible Gujarati leaders to take over the reigns of the party in that crucial state.

This may look too much for the Congress Party to achieve, given the absence of credible local leaders in most states. In the two major states where it is on top of the heap, Karnataka and Kerala, groupism is killing it. Rahul Gandhi becoming president is the party's last chance to bring a new generation of young leaders to the top in each state.

He can draw inspiration from words that thunder in Gujarat. Amit Shah thundered that the BJP would get 150 seats before 11 a.m. He couldn't touch 100 even by nightfall. Earlier, Gujarat's best-known under-aged voice thundered: " I, Hardik Patel, swear by the martyrdom of the 14 Patidars and vow to cast my vote on 9 and 14 December before 11 a.m to oust the BJP who are torturing six crore people of the State". The ousting didn't happen, but the thunder is still echoing in surprising Gujarat.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Small minds can create big dislocations in a democracy. When Prakash Karat says that the CPM's purity cannot be diluted by association with bourgeois parties, when Sharad Pawar fields 72 candidates in Gujarat knowing that he cannot go beyond single digits, when Mayawati, who put up 163 candidates in 2012 and scored 0 seats, fields 165 candidates this time, when Samajwadi Party pours money into the campaign knowing that it will get nowhere -- when such things happen, what we see is ego superceding basic political commonsense.

Everyone from Karat to Mayawati wants the BJP defeated because of its communal extremism. The basic political commonsense then is for them to field common candidates so that votes won't be split leading to the adversary's victory. But conceit won't allow them to do that. In the 16-seat Surat area, the NCP is contesting in 9 seats and the local chief agreed that votes in those seats would get divided to the BJP's advantage. It's as though politicians are happy to cut the nose to spite the face.

Small parties get smaller as a result of such egocentric policies. Under Prakash Karat the CPM has become an inconsequential party. Not that it was very consequential before be became general secretary. But his predecessor Harkishen Singh Surjeet had enabled the party to punch above its weight. An amiable networker, he had excellent personal relations with all parties and all leaders which made him a key player in times of crisis and controversy. Under him the CPM, despite having no power, wielded great influence.

Karat proved to be the very opposite of Surjeet, considering himself ideologically superior to all others and confining his contacts to a handful of party cronies. He not only witnessed the loss of West Bengal which the party had ruled for more than three decades; his petulance led to the party losing an effective voice it had in the Rajya Sabha. Sitaram Yechury was popular. Perhaps for that reason Karat turned against him and ensured that he was not given a third term. In the name of ideology he refuses contact with the Congress. The BJP won't even thank him for the assistance thus provided.

Uttar Pradesh VIPs are even more thick-headed. Exhortations have appeared in the media emphasising that Akhilesh Yadav is the natural opposition candidate to take on Narendra Modi in 2019. As a Samajwadi loyalist put it: Rahul Gandhi may not be acceptable to others as the face against Modi, but Akhilesh will be. He conceded that his party could have friendly relations with the Congress, but not a joint programme; "Akhilesh against Modi in 2019 will be a winner".

Most other parties ignored this proposition. Naturally. But Mayawati's admirers won't let such a claim go unnoticed. Naturally. A BSP spokesman quickly dismissed Samajwadi pretensions. "Behenji is the only leader with a pan-India presence. If there is to be a prime ministerial candidate from the opposition, it has to be Behenji". The advantage with UP leaders is that they know that the sun rises in Ballia and sets in Ghaziabad of which Delhi is a suburb.

A new entrant to this game of "me-first" is Asaduddin Owaisi, the Muslim entrepreneur from Hyderabad. His home seat has been a fortress for him for long. But the rise of Telangana and BJP's deliberate inroads into his bastion have raised new challenges. In a frank admission, the articulate Owaisi said recently: "If we are silent our identity will be wiped out from Indian politics".

So he contested 35 seats in far-away UP. He did not win even one. (He got a consolation prize when he bagged 29 of the 78 seats in UP's municipal elections). He split Muslim votes and contributed to the massive victory of the BJP. The effect of splitting was dramatically illustrated in Deoband, a Muslim-majority area and seat of a famous Islamic centre. The BJP's Hindu candidate won there. The BSP's Muslim candidate and the Samajwadi's Muslim candidate together won more votes than the BJP candidate.

Refusing to learn the lesson, Owaisi is fielding candidates in the forthcoming election in Karnataka where the BJP is exerting every muscle and every rupee it has to regain power. The Congress has a fair chance to win, but splitting of votes can eliminate that chance. Those with short sight won't care. This is how small minds help their enemies and create dislocations that harm themselves and the larger polity. "Behold, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed".